With the fast world we live in, as well as the cost of living rising, most Moms have no option but to work! It’s great that the Corporate World has evolved and allows this to happen. A major advantage of moving to a Virtual Office has allowed many businesses the freedom of working from home and not losing their professional image. This article from The Star on the 30th September 2012, shows how it’s possible to be a full time parent who is also an income generating parent.

Allowing flexible hours and work mobility might prove to be a win-win situation for both employer and employee, especially in areas where talent is scarce.

MANAGING a team, attending meetings, doing the laundry, cleaning the house and cooking for her family it’s all in a day’s work for programme’ manager Carol Chew.

If you’re wondering how she manages it, her (open) secret is that she works from home.

“When I had my daughter Eisther in 2006, I couldn’t work from home (because there was no such company policy),” she says.

Things changed when the company was bought over by a multinational corporation (MNC), and when she had her son Daniel in 2008, it was already a norm for Chew, 35, to be attending meetings in her T-shirt and shorts online and in the comfort of her home.

Juggling act: Chew with her husband and their two children Eisther and Daniel. Chew says working from home doesn’t mean her hours are shorter or less productive.

“My company allows this flexibility but it depends on your immediate boss. My boss, who is Australian, says he is fine with me working from home so long as I attend the meetings on time, and I’m visible to the team in the (online) system during work hours,” she explains.

These days, Chew goes to the office on Tuesdays and Thursdays, sometimes either Monday or Friday, and works from home on Wednesdays. On days she goes to the office, she’s usually in at around 9am or 10am and leaves by 4.30pm to avoid the after-work traffic.

Being able to work from home allows me to cook for my family and do the laundry. I can push the clothes out to sun, and pull them in if it rains. I can pick up my children from kindergarten, or music class. Little things like that matter to me.

Chew says working from home also reduced her stress levels, which allowed her to produce more breast milk for her baby.

“With Eisther, I stopped breastfeeding her before she was a year old. With Daniel, I was able to breastfeed him until he was two years plus,” she says.

Dr Lai: “When children grow up feeling safe and secure, it directly affects their physical health.”

Despite working from home, Chew makes the effort to maintain her professional workspace. She sends her children to her mother’s house nearby when she has to focus on work, and says that her mother has been a great help with the children.

“No one will fault you if there’s a baby crying in the background when you’re on a conference call, but I prefer to maintain a professional workspace and good work ethics.”

Working from home doesn’t mean her hours are shorter or less productive either.

“I’m still working 40-hour weeks” in fact, working from home can mean I end up doing 60-hour weeks, because sometimes you end up working till late at night.

“But this is how I give back to the company, by putting 100% when I’m at work,” she says, adding that such policies on flexibility promotes company loyalty as well.

Another working mother, who only wanted to be identified as Kathy, says she too has benefited from being able to work flexible hours after having her children.

When Kathy, 36, had her daughter Elysha in 2007, she started working 20-hour weeks.

“I negotiated with my boss, and we agreed to a 20-hour week. It was up to me how I wanted to put in the 20 hours, and which days I wanted to go in to the office. My salary was also adjusted accordingly,” she says.

Kathy, who is a senior engineer in the oil and gas industry, says being able to work part-time then helped her to adjust better to motherhood and also allowed her to spend a lot of time with her newborn. “As a result, Elysha and I are very, very close.”

Ramanathan: “˜Employees are allowed to organise their working hours according to business requirements.’

Being able to work part-time also helped her cope with work and family as she has had problems getting a full-time maid. She gets by with the help of a part-time maid, and help from her parents and her in-laws as well.

When she had her second daughter Beth, in 2010, Kathy was required to work 40-hour weeks, but it was up to her how she wanted to put in the hours. Till today, she usually works Mondays to Thursdays, giving her a three-day weekend with the family.

“If I really need to, I’ll go in for a few hours on Saturday, but at least I can send Beth to playschool on Fridays.

“I am really grateful that my boss is understanding and supportive of working mums. That has helped me remain with the company, because he’s also someone who understands how important family is,” she says.

For Kathy, having this balance between work and family is the “best arrangement”.

“On the one hand, I’m able to work and contribute to the family income, and on the other hand I’m able to be there for my children and be directly involved in their upbringing, especially when they are so young,” she says.

According to Penang Hospital consultant (child and adolescent) psychiatrist Dr Lai Fong Hwa, the benefits of having a parent around during a child’s early formative years are immense.

“Mothers provide that secure foundation for a child, and it’s much better for a child to be cared for by his/her mother than a maid, as children tend to model after their caregiver.

Sanjeev: “˜We have introduced a host of initiatives to provide a positive and flexible work environment.’

“When children grow up feeling safe and secure, it directly affects their physical health. They also tend to generally do better in school and in life,” he says.

Dr Lai adds that having flexibility at work is good for both mother and baby.

“Stress from a mother can be easily transferred on to a child,” he explains.

“Having flexible hours would help reduce stress for a mother as she can adjust the amount of work and time she has to cope with, compared with a mother who has to deal with rigid work hours and a heavy workload.”

Companies, particularly larger international MNCs, are taking note of the growing trend of flexible hours and work mobility.

IBM Malaysia, for example, whose women workforce outnumber the men at 57%, provides for 90 days of maternity leave, which was implemented last October.

According to IBM Malaysia managing director S. Ramanathan, employees are allowed to organise their working hours according to business requirements.

“A large number of employees are under the mobility programme where they can either work from home, or at customer facilities (on projects). We also have an arrangement for part-time work such as a two-or-three-day week versus a five-day week,” says Ramanathan via e-mail.

“This is a trend welcomed by our women employees who go on maternity leave, as they sometimes take extended leave or leave of absence. This extended period is aimed at helping new mothers transition to a different lifestyle with a newborn baby.”

There is a need for employers to review their employ ment policies and to accommodate some of the requirements of their staff, if they want to retain the talent within their companies. ““ Shamsuddin Bardan

One of the challenges the company faced during the transition period was on managing staff remotely, but Ramanathan says technology has allowed for maximum flexibility, “as a notebook with all the necessary software and hardware allows an employee to work from wherever she is”.

Citibank Bhd, too, allows its staff to work flexible hours, with the option of working from home “depending on the role”.

According to Citibank Bhd chief executive officer Sanjeev Nanavati, about 69% of the bank’s employees are women, with a majority of them in child-bearing age.

“We recognise the sheer power of the economic opportunity presented by women and we have introduced a host of initiatives to provide a positive and flexible work environment, with a focus on attracting and retaining talented female employees,” he says in an e-mail interview.

Citibank has allowed for flexible work hours for all its employees since 2006, where they can negotiate for a two- or three-day work week. The company also provides for 90-day maternity leave, implemented since early 2010.

Taking it a step further, Citibank also has a crche called CitiKids Care Centre, a free facility for all of the bank’s employees. The centre was launched in November 2010.

“We currently have 60 Citikids in the centre, ranging from ages three to six years,” Sanjeev says.

Steps like these are precisely what is needed from more companies in Malaysia, says Malaysian Employers Federation executive director Shamsuddin Bardan.

He says there is a need for employers to review their employment policies and to accommodate some of the requirements of their staff if they want to retain the talent within their companies.

“A lot of give and take needs to be done. Gone are the days where a company can say If you can’t suit our company policies, then you are free to leave,'” Shamsuddin says. (He was previously quoted as saying that employers spend an average of RM25,000 to RM30,000 to replace each employee who quits.)

Many employers within the region, such as in Japan and Singapore, already have policies which facilitate employees’ requirement for greater work-life balance. In Malaysia, he says, there are perhaps fewer than 20 companies which allow for such flexibility, and these would be the MNCs.

“Mothers who need to care for their children may feel they have no choice but to resign from their jobs if their companies are not willing to be a little more flexible,” he says.

But he adds that such fluid arrangements may be more practical in certain industries and roles than others.

According to the Malaysian Labour Force Statistics, as at July this year, Malaysia has a labour force (potential labour) of about 13.2 million people, of which the male to female ratio is about equal. About 12.8 million people are employed.

“Where the labour force participation rate for males is about 80% (about 5.28 million people), it’s only 49% (about 3.23 million people) for females. This is such a shame considering that more than 60% of our graduates are women,” Shamsuddin says.

However, he adds that a lot will have to change work culture, legislation and national policies before work mobility and flexibility become more commonplace in the Malaysian workforce.

“There needs to be a lot of trust and integrity,” he says, adding that such a system can only work if parties on both ends keep their side of the bargain.

Legislation, in particular the Employment Act 1955, will also need a total review.

“When this act was written in the 1950s, Malaysia was heavily into mining, timber, rubber and other agriculture industries. The laws were catered to suit the needs then. There is a need for a review of the law now to meet our current needs,” Shamsuddin says.

“Legislation has to be an enabler for Malaysia to move forward, instead of being a stumbling block.”

He adds that policies also need to be in place “to encourage mothers who have left the workforce for say, three, or five, or even seven years, to rejoin the workforce”.

“Why not have a system to facilitate them coming back (into the workforce)? Companies should be allowed to use the money in the Human Resource Development Fund (HRDF) to train potential employees, such as these mothers, who will need re-training,” he says.

Currently, companies can only use the HRDF to train existing employees.

Companies which are already practising such fluid policies say it is a win-win situation for both the employer and employee. And they are likely right.

Given a choice between their children or work, many mothers say that if push comes to shove, their children win every time. As Chew puts it: “Money can’t buy back time for me to see my children grow up.”